The inside story of Liverpool's potential deal for Ruben Neves – and Wolves's prospective replacement
In Portugal, nine out of the country's 10 most valuable footballers have placed their careers in the control of super-agent Jorge Mendes. Hardly a move is made in the local market without his knowledge. He’s the one who makes things happen.
It doesn’t mean, however, that all of the footballers who work with Mendes’s agency, Gestifute, have had chance to meet the man himself. As strange as it may sound, a large number of them have never discussed any details in person with the former nightclub owner who has Cristiano Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho and David de Gea among his clients.
Speak to any footballer from the Portuguese league and it’s not even unusual to hear the sentence: “Mendes represents me, but I’ve never talked to him.”
That happens because Mendes has two right-hand men who are always travelling around the country and handling the issues concerning more under-the-radar stars. A retired centre-back, Hugo Valdir, takes cares of Lisbon and the surrounding region. Meanwhile, Joao Camacho is responsible for Porto and the north of Portugal.
Rise of Ruben
Camacho watched Ruben Neves coming up through Porto’s academy. He saw the player become the youngest captain in Champions League history, when Neves led his boyhood club at the age of 18 and 221 days in a group match against Maccabi Tel Aviv in October 2015.
With achievements like this, the highly-rated midfielder earned the right to have Jorge Mendes close to his career, and not one of his lieutenants.
The Portuguese agent didn’t have to do much to persuade Neves to switch from Porto to Championship side Wolverhampton Wanderers in a £15.8m transfer that stunned world football in July 2017. The 21-year-old Neves trusts in Mendes implicitly – and the mastermind of football's second-most surprising transfer of last summer is ready to do it again.
Despite public statements saying that Neves wants to remain at Wolves next season, having helped the club end their six-year exile from the Premier League, sources have told FourFourTwo that the outstanding midfielder has an ongoing negotiation with Liverpool – and that he can leave Molineux if the Merseyside board comes in with the right offer.
Neves’s entourage recently made the trip to England and were informed that, although a deal is still far from reached, it could advance in the coming weeks.
Sources have told FourFourTwo that the outstanding midfielder has an ongoing negotiation with Liverpool
Mendes has been working on it and has potentially lined up Anderson Talisca (currently on loan at Besiktas) as a replacement for Neves, even though the duo play different roles on the pitch at present.
The Brazil U23 international has refused overtures from Chinese outlet Changchun Yatai and told his representatives that he wants a Premier League move once the current season is over. One of the most influential Brazilian agents, Carlos Leite, has been working with Gestifute to settle the playmaker’s future. Leite is an old pal of Mendes and acted as his key man in Brazil in the early 2000s.
Besiktas have the option to sign Talisca permanently for £18m this summer from Benfica, but so far have failed to convince the Portuguese giants to accept the payment format (the fee would be paid in instalments).
Critics and benefits
Wolves’s relationship with Mendes, whose agency has seven clients at the club, has attracted criticism from rivals after they clinched promotion at a canter. The West Midlands club claim they haven't broken any rules, though, and have no reason to end the relationship.
Replacing Neves with Talisca, who started his career as a central midfielder in Brazilian football, is an example of how the Portuguese agent works; moving pieces around to make sure the transfer window remains profitable, with everyone having a place at the table.
Neves is not new on Liverpool’s radar, and has been watched since his Porto days. A move to bring him in was considered before, with former first-team development coach Pepijn Lijnders pushing for his purchase before Jurgen Klopp’s appointment. Lijnders revealed how highly he rates the midfielder, who he had coached at Porto, in an interview with the Times.
“If you bring one or two young players through it opens a pathway for all the rest – it was the same with Porto, with Ruben Neves getting in,” he said. “Ruben opened up the door for everyone by accelerating the process with young players and creating the right projects around young players... giving them the belief that it’s possible.”
With six beauties netted from outside the area in 39 games this season, Neves would seem the ideal replacement for Emre Can, whose contract expires in June. Napoli’s Jorginho has also been touted to fill in the space that could be left open, but his agent Joao Santos, who is based in Istanbul, says his client has not been approached.
Snubbing other offers, trusting Mendes’s advice and dropping down to England’s second tier was a risk, but Neves will be a Premier League footballer from August 2018 onwards – it just remains to be seen whether it will be for Liverpool or Wolves.